“We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark,” was how Richard Dreyfuss famously summed up the nightmarish production of Jaws, whose last-minute rewrites, technical hitches and sinking boats almost halted Steven Spielberg’s career before it had even begun.
Incredibly, Jaws was defined rather than destroyed by its arduous shoot. The presence of the murderous shark was implied through editing and music rather than excessive effects shots, while the absence of a finished script for much of the movie resulted in some of Jaws‘ most memorable lines – “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”, Quint’s bloodcurdling Indianapolis speech – were either improvised or partly written by the actors themselves.
As this article aims to demonstrate, starting a film production without a finished script needn’t spell disaster – but not having one can often prove extremely costly…
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder’s unforgettably cutting film noir is famous for its sparkling and oft-quoted script (“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!”) – but remarkably, Wilder and his writer/producer collaborator Charles Brackett began filming Sunset Boulevard with only the first third of the screenplay complete. Unusually, this wasn’t due to poor planning or production deadlines, but as a means of sneaking the movie’s tricky subject matter past the film censors and its studio.
Aware that their movie, which didn’t show Hollywood in a particularly positive light, would horrify both Paramount and the board of examiners, Wilder and Brackett was produced under the title A Can Of Beans, while pages of the script were submitted to the censors a few pages at a time to obscure what the story was actually about.
Although minor dialogue changes were still forced on the script, Wilder and Brackett’s ploy worked – the movie was a critical and financial hit, and predictably, ruffled quite a few feathers in Hollywood. After a private screening, MGM boss Louis B Mayer loudly stated, “You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”
It’s said that Wilder’s response was a swift, pithy, “Go shit in your hat.”
Four years after the Oscar-winning Sunset Boulevard, Wilder directed the less controversial Sabrina. Like that earlier film, Sabrina’s script was still being written by Wilder and Ernest Lehman as scenes were being filmed. This led to a fair amount of tension on set, as a rather grumpy Humphrey Bogart – who was already convinced that he’d been miscast – lost his temper with Lehman over the absence of rewritten scenes. It’s said that Wilder even asked his leading lady Audrey Hepburn to stall the production by pretending to be ill, with the delay giving him more time to finish writing.
It’s a testament to Wilder and Lehman’s talent that Sabrina turned out to be another critical and financial success, with many reviewers ironically praising Bogart’s performance as the finest in his career. By contrast, Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake did start with a finished script, and was a flop.
Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s sparkling three-and-a-half-hour biopic bears little evidence of its mishap-strewn production, caused in small part by the lack of a finished script. Hollywood screenwriter Michael Wilson (who’d been blacklisted during the McCarthyist flap in 1950) had written the original draft for Lawrence Of Arabia, which Lean disliked.
English playwright Robert Bolt was hired to write a new draft which put more focus on TE Lawrence, and less on the political turbulence of the Arab Revolt. Unfortunately, the rewrites caused delays in shooting, while Bolt’s arrest during a nuclear disarmament protest caused even more disruption – another English playwright, Beverley Cross, had to be drafted in until Bolt was released.
Based on the Cold War thriller novel of the same name by Leon Uris, Topaz was initially adapted for the screen by the author himself. The famously exacting Alfred Hitchcock had his own ideas, however, and having rejected Uris’ attempts at a draft, hired Vertigo writer Samuel A Taylor to prepare a new one. Unfortunately, Taylor’s last-minute appointment left him with no time to finish the script, and writing continued well into shooting.
Although Topaz is recognisably a Hitchcock film, it’s not among the director’s finest work. Perhaps as a result of its rushed script, the pacing is rather too languid, and critics picked fault with Taylor’s dialogue in particular. One of Hitchcock’s few true box-office failures, Topaz earned back just $1 million on its $4 million budget.
Alien 3 (1992)
The production horrors that beset Alien 3 are well documented, and explored exhaustively in Charles de Lauzirika’s film, Wreckage And Rage. A film that started with a release deadline but no clear idea of its story, Alien 3 cycled through two directors and several screenplay drafts before David Fincher was brought on board shortly ahead of filming. By then, numerous huge and expensive sets had already been constructed at Pinewood Studios, leaving the filmmakers with the unenviable task of writing scenes around the chunks of gothic space prison they’d already built.
“We have had to make a lot of changes in the script as we’ve gone along,” Sigourney Weaver admitted to Empire’s Garth Pearce. “We were building the sets before we had a script and having to cast it quickly, because of time concerns. That was not the way that Fincher wanted to do his first film.”
Nervous about the impending release date and the 27-year-old director they’d appointed, Fox’s executives subjected Fincher to constant scrutiny – and by the time Fox’s studio-enforced reshoots had taken place, Fincher had abandoned the project. Thanks in no small part to the chaos surrounding its script, Alien 3‘s budget had spiralled from an initially earmarked $35 million to an estimated $65 million by the time it was finished in the spring of 1992.
Jurassic Park III (2001)
Like Alien 3, the third Jurassic Park movie went into production without a finished script. Although one draft was ready during pre-production, and numerous sets and props had been built in preparation, new director Joe Johnston (taking over the franchise from Steven Spielberg) rejected the script five weeks before shooting, opting instead for a very different story dreamed up by David Koepp.
“Five weeks before we started shooting this movie, we threw the script out and started over,” Johnston said in a 2000 interview. ” We never did have a final script. We did not have a final script until after we wrapped the movie. We shot pages that eventually went into the final script but we didn’t have a document. The joke on the set was it was going to be the wrap gift, everybody got a script.”
Perhaps due to the off-the-cuff process of its filming, Jurassic Park III was the shortest of the franchise (just 92 minutes) and the most coolly received critically – but thanks to the allure of those dinosaurs, the movie still clawed in a respectable $368 million.
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
The sequel to 2003’s Curse Of The Black Pearl was, in spite of the success of its predecessor, almost cancelled. Production was so chaotic that, for a brief period, Disney considered cutting its losses and shutting it down. The studio eventually thought better of it, though, and Dead Man’s Chest (shot back-to-back with its sequel, At World’s End) continued filming without a finished script – instead, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wrote a sort of rough outline for the crew to follow, and would often be writing scenes while on location.
Dead Man’s Chest was a longer and less favourably received film by critics, but its more bloated state didn’t harm its box-office performance, with its worldwide receipts amounting to more than $1 billion.
Iron Man (2008)
Perhaps one of the more surprising entries on this list, the first Iron Man movie shares neither the brevity of Jurassic Park III, the murky plot of Alien 3, or the bloat of Dead Man’s Chest. A rip-roaring adventure with a great leading turn from Robert Downey Jr, it remains one of the most enjoyable adaptations of a Marvel comic book to date. But behind the scenes, things weren’t quite as organised as you might think.
“They had no script, man,” co-star Jeff Bridges revealed in a recent interview. “They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, ‘You got any ideas?’ Meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on.”
Although a story was firmly in place, the dialogue wasn’t – leading to much improvisation on set, which accounts for the film’s energetic, sparky atmosphere.
“I said, ‘Oh, what we’re doing here, we’re making a $200 million student film. We’re all just fuckin’ around! We’re playin’. Oh, great!'” Bridges recalled. “That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.’ And it turned out great!”
Like Crazy (2011)
Proving that it isn’t just huge Hollywood movies that film without a script in the 21st century, Drake Doremus’ romantic drama was largely improvised by its young cast, which included Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones. Inspired by the real-life experiences of Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones, the filmmakers had the confidence to let his actors bring their own words and ideas to the characters rather than feed them with their own.
“Anton and Felicity improvised the film based on our very specific outline and direction, brought a lot of themselves,” Doremus told the Huffington Post. “Through my guidance they found a really sort of unique thing, so that Anton and Felicity could sort it out and they believed in everything they were saying and everything they were doing.”
Harking back to an improvisational kind of filmmaking in the tradition of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Like Crazy’s free-form approach resulted in a light, refreshing drama that deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2011.
Men In Black III (2012)
The belated Men In Black second sequel was rushed into production in 2010 in order to take advantage of a tax break – the unfortunate side effect being that a finished script hadn’t yet been written when shooting began in New York in October that year.
In an interview with this very site, makeup effects designer Rick Baker recalled the difficult production on Men In Black III. “What made it difficult for me was I would start designing aliens for a specific scene in the script, and get pretty far along, and they’d say, ‘We’re not doing that scene anymore, it’s not in the movie,'” Baker recalled. “It’s like, oh shit, you know? As it turns out, we could use most all of them in the movie anyways, in other scenes, but some aliens were very specifically designed for a specific scene.”
Director Barry Sonnenfeld and his crew even took the unusual step of filming the picture in two halves, with production shutting down for around four months, before starting back up in April 2011. Meanwhile, a screenwriter was frantically rewriting scenes – often while on set. No one, it seemed, could quite work out a way to make the movie’s knotty time travel plot work.
“They continued to write the script as we were there – they actually had a guy on the set with a laptop who was writing the lines as we were doing them,” Baker said. “Usually, that doesn’t work, but when I saw a rough cut of the film, I was like, ‘Wow, how does this happen?’ It had a lot of heart, and I thought it was fun.”
Fortunately, audiences agreed, and while the film cost almost as much to make as the previous two films put together (its budget is estimated to be somewhere around $215 million) it was a hit, earning back more than three times its investment – and even critics conceded that, although it was no classic, Men In Black III was a huge improvement on its disappointing predecessor.
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